Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Elliott and Hanning, Peter Clarke and Lord Howard of Rising.

Cameron: Practically a Conservative by Francis Elliott and James Hanning

With the apparent failure of a centre-right realignment and the growing strength of the Labour Party, questions are multiplying over David Cameron’s inability to create a new story for British politics. Jason Cowley, writing in the New Statesman this week, appraises the timely arrival of an updated version of Francis Elliott’s and James Hanning’s biography of David Cameron, first published in 2007 – a book that "will surely become the standard Cameron biography". It is a narrative of power where "again and again, Cameron’s charm is noticed and remarked upon". The old Etonian’s charm is such that Cameron’s rise is recounted by Elliott and Hanning "with hushed, excited reverence, which at times pushes the book closer towards hagiography".  The authors’ failure is most apparent in their attempt to convey something of Cameron’s inner life. In this regard, Elliott and Hanning may not be entirely at fault. Cowley observes that not only has Cameron never published anything of note, and that "gives an impression of knowing as much as he wants to know". In an age of profound political instability, Cameron remains dangerously "caught, even trapped, within a class and tradition". Such constraints, Cowley concludes, mean that the Cameron story "may not have the happy ending for which he and his party would have wished".

John Dugdale, writing in the Guardian, also notes how the update brings forward a very different story. The contrast is stark: "Before, he appeared poised to be embraced by the electorate, having escaped [his] gilded background; now he seems still detrimentally shaped by it, his failings as PM often attributable to an establishment mindset and image shared by his inner circle". The authors, "notably sharp on Cameron’s botched election campaign, uncertain EU policy and disastrous wooing of Rupert Murdoch’s executives", spare little criticism. It is the analysis of these fresh crises, writes Boyd Tonkin in the Independent, that shows how "'Flashman', the easily-rattled top dog, can lack drive and focus".

Enoch at 100: a Re-evaluation of the Life, Politics and Philosophy of Enoch Powell edited by Lord Howard of Rising

The qualities of Enoch Powell are re-evaluated in this commemorative collection of his speeches and essays by contemporary commentators. As a body of material, it offers an exploration of the rhetorical leitmotifs of the far right. These motifs are apparent in the "Rivers of Blood" speech of April 1968, which described a situation of such excessive immigration that could, Powell claimed, only be solved by non-white repatriation. The speech "made Powell a hero, particularly to the lumpenproletariat, astonished and gratified to discover a person of culture and refinement prepared to echo their fouler thoughts," writes Vernon Bogdanor in the New Statesman; "it was, in truth, unforgivable". Bogdanor examines how the rhetoric of persecution in turn gave birth to the right-wing trope of the liberal conspiracy to close down discussion of immigration. If so, the continuous political manipulation of immigration by the Conservatives can only mean that "the liberal conspiracy has not been very successful". For Bogdanor, Powell was "one of the 20th century’s false prophets", his "predictions of ethnic conflict – indeed, of civil war – have proved spectacularly wrong".

Charles Moore, writing in the Telegraph, finds that the prophet still has something to say. Despite the inflammatory oratory, Powell’s "commitment to the British nation state, and above all to the Parliament which embodied it, made him pay relentless attention to the visceral issues which lay behind the questions of the day". The book also sets out "his groundbreaking ideas about what causes inflation, his bold approach to energy policy". Moore sees the juxtaposition of both essays and speeches as offering a valuable insight into Powell’s powers of argument and expression: "He could think boldly about a huge range of subjects, and then argue about them with intellectual force and high emotion". Burning through the collection is Powell’s "strangely compelling tone of voice – the odd combination of eccentric professor and mass orator, of almost archaic obscurity and devastating clarity". This judgement is echoed by Adrian Hilton for the Daily Mail: "It becomes apparent to those who do not already know that Enoch Powell was, like Lear, a man more sinned against than sinning."

Mr Churchill's Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer by Peter Clarke

Peter Clarke’s book, an examination of the relationship between Winston Churchill’s literary output and his political career, enters a field of study where newcomers "need either to bring with them a reputation already made or else to happen upon a theme that has so far escaped notice," writes Douglas Hurd in the New Statesman. For Hurd, Clarke’s sharp research happily fulfils both criteria. In Clarke’s exploration of Churchill’s inheritance from his parents, the intersections between the political and the literary come readily enough. Churchill’s 1906 biography of his father, written while MP for Oldham, "was an openly partisan attempt to rebuild his father’s reputation as a Tory democrat". The narrative is familiar, but Clarke maintains a focus "on the relationship of Churchill with the publishers who moved from excitement to despair and back again as they watched, almost helplessly, the ups and downs of the author’s love affair with history – more particularly with his own page in that story". Churchill’s last work, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, written during the 1930s and eventually published in the 1950s, provoked an argument between the author and his publishers, inevitably fuelled by Churchill’s "determination to include in the History as much as possible of the traditional accounts on which he had been brought up".

Maya Jasanoff, writing in the Wall Street Journal, is most struck by Clarke’s focus on the financial aspect of Churchill’s writing career, "for a book about books, 'Mr Chuchill’s Profession' has rather more to say about those of the accounting variety than those filled with prose". But Richard Vinen, writing in the Independent, is sharpest on picking up on how the Anglophone world took shape in Churchill’s mind. Although Clarke denies that Churchill was an Anglo-Saxon supremacist, Vinen maintains that "race played a large role in his thinking. Even before the First World War, he talked in terms of 'Russian power, the yellow races, the Teutonic alliance and the English-speaking peoples'". But Vinen’s main problem with Clarke’s study is that it offers "neither a clear synthesis nor an original piece of research". An eye on the market, as well as Clarke’s reliance on reputation, makes the book seem "rather like many of Winston Churchill’s," Vinen concludes.

False prophet: Enoch Powell in 1978 (Photograph: Getty Images)
KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism